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On the Move for SINAI

On the Move for SINAI

By: Joanne Palmer
for The Jewish Standard/Times of Israel

Sometimes things — ideals, education, skills — simply come together. They gel. They make sense. They just plain work.

These are the elements that combined this summer:

The Sinai Schools, the Teaneck-based institution that provides highly specialized, often cutting-edge education to its special-needs students in classrooms inside day schools, knows that very few of its parents can afford the school’s full sticker price. Rather than turning away any child who otherwise could be helped by the school, it taps many other funding sources, including fundraising from the community.

Sinai models inclusion — neurotypical children learn that just as it is true that each child is different from every other child, each person is different from every other person, it also is true that every child, every person, grows and learns by being part of a community. So Sinai gently confronts the great dilemma of modern Jewish life — the values of individuality versus community — with love and hope.

Jewish values, as taught by Jewish schools to children both with and without special needs, include chesed — doing acts of goodness, of kindness, out of love. Jewish values also include an understanding of leadership, including the understanding that at times, if what you want isn’t right in front of your face, you have to organize and work and sometimes you get it.

Sinai has been around for some time now, and the parents of some children remember it as an institutional presence from their own childhoods. (That’s an even stronger phenomenon because a striking number of young parents grew up locally.)

And also there is the truth that many kids are inherently competitive; they love proving themselves to be faster or stronger than their friends. And when there are prizes for being faster or stronger — what’s not to like?

And then, of course, it’s summertime, when the living is easy — or at least easier, when it comes to schedules and obligations.

All in all, it is a perfect time for a fund-raiser at local day camps.

It started six years ago with Swim for Sinai, where children ask the adults in their lives to sponsor them as they swim laps in their camps’ pools.

Now, three day camps — Camp Shalom in Chestnut Ridge, N.Y., Chabad Kiddie Camp in Teaneck, and Camp Regesh in Old Tappan — Swim for Sinai, but the fourth, Camp Al Haderech in Teaneck, doesn’t have a pool.

But really, no pool? No problem! Instead of swimming, day campers run. They Sweat for Sinai.

But there’s even more. Other children, who aren’t at day camp, or are at a day camp, like Teaneck’s Sports and Arts, that doesn’t participate in Swim or Sweat for Sinai, also wanted to raise money for the camp. So they did, through lemonade stands, unofficial (but encouraged runs), and other time-honored ways for kids to support the causes they care about.

Esti Herman of Fair Lawn is Sinai’s chief development officer. She’s been in the job for about three years, but her connection to Sinai goes back to its beginning, in Fair Lawn, where everyone talked about it.

She’s excited about the numbers of children involved in swimming, sweating, or otherwise fundraising for Sinai. “There are about almost 700 campers at Regesh, which just joined us this year, and about 600 at Shalom,” she said. Those kids got “their bubbes and zaydes to donate per lap,” and the amount of money all those kids and all their parents and grandparents can raise is significant.

But beyond that, there is the educational value of the program.


“All those hundreds of children know that there are other children who are special.

“We are all special in our own way,” she added. It’s a balance. “We all have our own needs, in our own ways, but these kids need a little more,” Ms. Herman said. “It’s just like you might have a cast on your leg, or need crutches. Some of these kids may use a wheelchair, or have a hearing aid.

“Some of those kids may be your friends or your relatives.” In fact, she added, often, when she talks about Sinai with non-Sinai kids, “they hold up their hands and say ‘My sister is at Sinai,’ or ‘My dad is part of Sinai,’ or ‘my neighbor goes to Sinai.’

“We want them to know how important it is to think about others before they think about themselves,” Ms. Herman said.

The school offers children prizes if they raise large amounts of money. Some kids are energized by the prizes, some by the knowledge that they’re helping others, and some by a combination of both. Some swim or run with camps, where they are eligible for prizes. Others, are motivated solely by the need to do good.

“Everyone should give back,” Ms. Herman said. “I know the phrase is to give until it hurts, but I don’t like that, and I don’t use it. What I say instead is that you should give until it feels great.”

Deena Wertman Lewin of Teaneck is a cochair of Swim for Sinai. Despite the many hours that she has devoted to the school, she does not have a child in it. But she is a parent — of a 2½-year-old and a 6-year-old — and a fourth-grade teacher at Yeshivat Noam, so she knows what she’s looking at. “Sinai is a very special place,” she said.

She has known about Sinai since she was a child in Fair Lawn, and then a student at Ma’ayanot, which houses a Sinai program. “We always interacted with Sinai students,” she said. “I was always connected with it. It’s always good to integrate the kids in general; the Sinai program exposes all these different kids to each other, and kids learn that it’s good to help everyone to learn in the way they want to learn.”

Ms. Lewin works at Al Haderech, so she’s seen Swim for Sinai from both sides. As cochair, she’s worked with camp leaders to facilitate the fundraiser; as a camp employee, she is able to see the benefits the participants reap from it.

She’s also seen how the desire to give can inspire kids, and how their parents can teach them how to shape and work with that inspiration, to harness it as a way of life.

She recalls a recent evening when a friend had a group of women in her home, working for another chesed project, when that friend’s son started fundraising for Sinai.

That friend, Alysa Cohen of Teaneck, picked up the story.

“The other night, I had volunteered to host what was called a Shabbes night,” she said. “It’s for Chesed 24/7; that’s an organization that works in local hospitals to provide resources, particularly kosher food and other resources, for families that might be stuck in a hospital over Shabbes.

“So I got a bunch of women together at my house, and we packaged boxes — they’re called Shabbes in a Box, challah, grape juice, a tablecloth, a flower, to give some ambience, to make it less hospital-ish.

“So that was my event, and it just so happened that Yonatan was there.” Yonatan is Ms. Cohen’s 11-year-old, the third of her four children, who was in day camp at Teaneck Sports and Arts. Campers there had planned their own Sinai competition. He wanted to raise some money for the school.

“I had invited my mother, Sarah Gerstley, and my sister, Darbie Rabinowitz, who is an occupational therapist who works at Sinai. I encouraged Yoni to start with them, to invite them to support his cause.”


So, with a little coaching from his mother — because although some people are natural-born fund-raisers, most are not — Yonatan asked his grandmother and his aunt to support him, and through him to support Sinai.

They did.

“And then he approached every person there individually — there were about sixteen people. He went up to each one individually and had a conversation with them. It wasn’t anything he had ever done before.” Armed with the understanding he’d gotten from his mother — “I explained why it is such an important fundraiser, why it costs so much more for a parent to send a child to Sinai, and he understood.”

As she taught her son about Sinai, she also was teaching him about the importance of tzedakah. “And he raised over $500,” Ms. Cohen said.

Elissa Siev’s daughter, Nava, also goes to Teaneck Sports and Arts. The not-quite-9-year-old’s little brother, David, goes to Camp Shalom, and he came home from camp talking about Swim for Sinai.

“Nava said, ‘I want to do this too, like my brother,’” Ms. Siev, an occupational therapist, said. “So we talked about it, and we said that there is no reason we can’t do it after camp. Just because she’s not in a Jewish camp, that didn’t mean she couldn’t participate.

“So we sent out the word, on Teaneck shuls, on the Bergenfield and Teaneck Facebooks groups, and Nava spoke to her friends. We made it work. She took the initiative. She was really amazing.

“At the end of the day, they had eight kids participating, and they raised more than $1,000,” Ms. Siev said.

Abigail Hepner Gross of Englewood is Sinai’s communications director. “It is so very moving that the kids are taking the initiative,” she said. “Some of the children are learning about Sinai for the first time, and some of the children are educating their parents about it. It’s about helping to create a generation of kids who are sensitive, who engage in chesed, and who can see that they really are making a difference.”